April 14, 2007
For the past year, a story that has dominated American media is the Duke Lacrosse scandal. On the one hand, I found myself in the middle of that story. I went to school and now work at Duke, so I was a firsthand witness to the media monsoon that erupted on campus. I followed the story through the student newspaper and had conversations about the case with colleagues and co-workers. On the other hand, I always felt detached from the whole ordeal. I never had strong opinions about any part of the drama and the story did not captivate my attention like it did for so many.
Coming from this perspective, one aspect of the whole ordeal has really got me thinking now that the story appears to be coming to a close. When the story first broke, it was shocking and scandalous. A black single mother who was a student at the small, mainly African-American college was gang raped by three white males from the elitist institution in the town where racial tensions have always been high. People reacted to this news with emotions that were powerful and raw. For most people, the situation was very clear: the accuser was “good” and the accused were “bad.” However, as time progressed and the evidence kept coming out, the tide of public opinion slowly began to reverse, culminating this past Wednesday when the North Carolina Attorney General declared the accused “innocent” of the charges brought against them. Amazingly, most people now see the same set of characters in a completely different light: the accusers, specifically the District Attorney, are now “bad” and the accused are now “good.” The accuser is a deeply troubled woman with a tumultuous past who should have never been taken seriously from the beginning. The District Attorney is a power-hungry politician who exploited and manipulated a turbulent situation for his own personal gain. And the lacrosse players are ordinary college students whose lives were destroyed by a series of horrible circumstances.
I believe that this complete reversal of public opinion illuminates a major problem created by sinful humanity: labeling. We have this insatiable desire to place people into specific categories so that we will know how we are supposed to act toward them. When we think of other people, we often do not think of them by their name, but by the label we have given them – selfish, nice, homosexual, married, slut, atheist, Christian, rich, poor, black, white, etc.
The other day I was riding a bus after work that would take me to the parking lot where my car was located. An acquaintance got on the bus and inquired about the book I was holding in my hand. I told him it was “Rich Christians In An Age Hunger,” a book that explores the distressing situation of poverty in the world. Without missing a beat he said to me: “The reason why people are poor is that they are lazy.” I thought he was kidding. He wasn’t. Thinking about that conversation got me wondering if this is what a lot of people do: rather than getting to know poor people and understanding the complexities of poverty, they simply label them as “lazy” and consequentially release themselves from any sort of responsibility.
Jesus understood the sinfulness of labeling and seemed to always resist it. The Bible tells one story where some religious leaders brought to Jesus a woman who was clearly caught sleeping with someone who was not her husband. They had a label for her and they knew exactly how they were supposed to treat her. They even had some Scripture that verified her label and what they were supposed to do with people who had her label. However, when Jesus looked at her, he did not see an “adulterer.” Instead, he saw a broken and hurting woman with a long history and a complex set of circumstances.
One of the things I have realized in my few short years on this earth is that people always surprise you. Time and again I have applied labels to people, either on my own or on the reference from another, only to watch those labels crumble as I take the time to learn their stories. And no matter how many times I discover someone is nothing like what I originally thought they were, I still always catch myself pulling out the label maker when it comes to forging new relationships. After all, it is easy to think of someone as simply a helpless victim or a lying prostitute. It is easy to label my friend on the bus as “ignorant.”
I think part of what it means to follow Jesus is to consciously and intentionally avoid applying labels to other people. I think Jesus calls us to the difficult and often painful task of really getting to know our neighbors and learning their complex story. I think we are supposed to be quick to listen and slow to speak and judge. I think we are supposed to focus on the potential of others and not their faults. I think Jesus demonstrated and now asks us to identify with all people, especially those that others have labeled “outcasts.” Doing so just might be the way to love.